Imagine that you are a baby and you end up in Santa’s bag on the way back to the North Pole. What is to be done? Well, maybe Santa takes you in and raises you like all the other elves, and you grow up thinking you are Buddy the Elf, even if you are markedly larger than all the other little elves.
That is the premise of Theatre Under the Stars’ Christmas musical Elf—and it's a fun ride, traveling with Buddy (remember the 2003 movie with Will Ferrell?) and his journey from the North Pole to New York City where he finds his real father and tries to figure out his place in the world outside of Santa's workshop. So, this isn’t just candy canes and toys, but a story about family, and what family means in relation to other things in this world, such as work and ambition.
Buddy’s new family is his real father, Walter Hobbs (a miscast Walter Halling), who had Buddy when he was in college with a woman named Susan (who is dead, although the reason is never explained). Anyway, Walter has remarried and has a son, although his work with a publishing house dominates Walter’s life and his workaholism really gets in the way of him having his holiday priorities in order. So, Buddy’s entrance into Walter’s life is a good excuse for everyone to break out into songs and help Walter get back into the Christmas spirit, which is dwindling as Christmas doesn’t seem the same as before, with kids demanding violent video games and reindeer not even being able to pull Santa’s sleigh.
There is a lot to like about this production. Quinn VanAntwerp is perfect as Buddy—an overgrown kid in an elf costume who is so naïve I could hardly stand it. His innocence is as charming as his physical comedy, and it's hard to imagine a better cast part. This isn’t really my kind of show—but director and excellent choreographer Dan Knechtges really makes it work. The music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin are funny and warm, and it was nice to see something new during the Christmas season rather than the same standard fare. Bravo for bringing something different to the stage this holiday season.
I loved the costume design by Colleen Grady, from Buddy’s elf get-up to the elf shoes at the North Pole to the best Santa costumes you will ever see. The sets (Matthew Smucker) worked beautifully, and there is even some snow, so the overall tableau of the show is a joy to watch.
But no production can really shine without outstanding performances, and this show has its share of stars. Buddy is clearly the center of the musical, and he carries the entire thing, in a way. But Steven Bogard deserves props as an excellent Santa who bookends the beginning and end of the show. The always-good Julia Krohn is superlative as Buddy's stepmom, Emily Hobbs, with a voice that soars and really stands out from all the other performances. Krohn is an actress who can deliver the most sarcastic or saccharine lines with aplomb, and I marveled at how she made so much of her character with relatively few scenes. I wanted her to be on stage more, and she and Carlos Garza (playing her son Michael) were wonderful, belting out some of the best singing of the show.
Another bright light of the night was the magnificent Simone Gundy, who plays Deb, an administrative assistant to Walter Hobbs at his publishing house job. But she is so much more, moving and grooving to every song, and singing her heart out in every number she was in. It's really something when you want more, more, more of a character on stage, and I loved every minute of her outstanding performance.
A few caveats: this is kind of a long show. But it gets better in the second half, especially with the stunning number of disaffected Santas in the high-energy and memorable “Nobody Cares About Santa.” It might be worth going for this song alone! I just noticed that a lot of parents with younger children left at intermission—staying past 10 p.m. is just too much for some kids. But with this show, you have something that almost any age can enjoy, and the ensemble cast is strong with catchy numbers and great dancing. They also manage to keep things light-hearted even with the slightly preachy reminders about the importance of getting into the Christmas spirit. They don’t mean this in a religious sense—there is no religion in this play—but even if you have a stone-cold lump of coal for a heart, it would be hard not to catch the Christmas fever and enjoy the vigor and charm of this holiday show. So, find a sleigh and fly on over to TUTS. You might even hear some jingle bells on the way.
Runs through Dec. 22. Tickets from $50. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. More info at thehobbycenter.org.